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Gus MacLeod via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

9 of the Most Isolated Towns on Earth

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Gus MacLeod via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

When residents of these remote communities say they live in the middle of nowhere, they’re not exaggerating. Whether they’re located 1500 miles from the nearest coast or 17,000 feet above sea level, these are nine isolated towns you won't find yourself “just passing through” anytime soon.

1. EDINBURGH OF THE SEVEN SEAS, TRISTAN DA CUNHA

Michael Clarke via WikimediaCommons // CC BY-SA 2.0

Located 1243 miles from the nearest settlement, this village on the South Atlantic island of Tristan da Cunha is considered one of the most isolated communities on earth. The town was named in honor of the Duke of Edinburgh’s visit to the island in 1867, but today it’s commonly referred to as “The Settlement” by the town’s 300-odd residents. The quickest way to get there is by hitching a six-day boat ride from South Africa, the island’s closest continental neighbor 1491 miles east. In addition to vibrant wildlife, the island is also home to an active volcano at its center. In 1961, the population had to be evacuated to England when it erupted, but thankfully the damage was minimal and most residents returned a few years later.

2. WHITTIER, ALASKA

Jessica Spengler via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

There’s only one road leading in or out of this south Alaskan town, and it passes through a 2.6-mile, single-lane tunnel that shuts down at night. The population spikes during the summer months, but in the winter Whittier claims around 200 residents. Most of the population lives together in a 14-story condominium building called Begich Towers, which is also home to the town's post office, church, and corner store.

3. VILLA LAS ESTRELLAS, ANTARCTICA

One of only two civilian settlements on the entire continent, the island of Villa Las Estrellas has all the components of your quintessential small town. The village of 100 (and even fewer during the winter months) is home to a gym, church, post office, and a gift shop for tourists. The town even boasts internet access, but it's reserved for exclusive use by the school’s three computers.

4. LA RINCONADA, PERU

Sitting nearly 17,000 feet above sea level, La Rinconada in the Peruvian Andes is the highest human settlement on earth. Despite the lack of running water and the dizzying altitude, the town has amassed a population of approximately 50,000. The main draw isn’t the view—it’s the gold mines located beneath the massive La Bella Durimiente glacier above the town.

5. SUPAI VILLAGE, ARIZONA

The Havasupai reservation village of Supai is only accessible by helicopter or by walking the eight-mile trail that connects it to the nearest road. Despite its remote location, the town still manages to attract tourists each year due to its Grand Canyon real estate and its proximity to the photogenic Havasu Falls. Supai remains one of the only spots in the U.S. where mail is still delivered via mule.

6. COOBER PEDY, AUSTRALIA

Remi DU via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

One hundred years ago, a teenager revolutionized Australia’s opal mining industry when he discovered a gemstone in the remote, southern outback. The unforgiving desert terrain wasn’t exactly an ideal place for a mining town, so in order to make it inhabitable, the homes of Coober Pedy were built underground. Today the population of less than 2000 enjoys access to an underground bar, underground art gallery, and three underground churches. In addition to producing most of the world’s opal, Coober Pedy also draws revenue from curious tourists.

7. LONGYEARBYEN, NORWAY

Bjørn Christian Tørrissen via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

The Scandinavian town of Longyearbyen is so far north that it’s closer to the North Pole than it is to Oslo, Norway’s capital. The arctic location makes for chilly temperatures year-round and long winters of unbroken darkness. The houses there are built on stilts in order to keep the underlying permafrost from melting beneath them and becoming unstable.

Despite these harsh conditions, Longyearbyen attracts residents from around the world. Of the town’s fewer than 3000 inhabitants, nearly a third of them are foreigners. The community’s greatest appeal is likely its shockingly low crime rate, which is helped by the fact that it's illegal to live in Longyearbyen without a job or a permanent address. (It’s also illegal to die there, because it’s too cold for bodies to decompose.) And while crime is low, gun ownership is unusually high—but this is primarily to protect against the threat of polar bears. The danger is such an issue that the police enforce a law that anyone straying outside the city limits must carry a weapon and know how to use it.

8. PALMERSTON, COOK ISLANDS

Paul Townsend via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

The remote island of Palmerston in the South Pacific was first settled by Englishman William Marsters 150 years ago. Today, all but three of the community’s 62 residents are the direct descendants of Marsters and his three Polynesian wives (who happened to be cousins). Part of the Cook Islands, Palmerston is made up of sandy islets connected by a circular coral reef, which sits too close to the surface for sea planes to land safely. The ocean outside the ring is too rough, so the island is only accessible by boat. In addition to reaching Palmerston by yacht or tourist ship, visitors can also try hitching a ride on the cargo ship that delivers supplies to the island twice a year.

9. SIWA OASIS, EGYPT

Heksamarre via Wikimedia Commons

As is the case with any true oasis, getting to Siwa is no picnic. Surrounded by hundreds of kilometers of empty Saharan desert, the remote village is best reached by hired car or an overnight bus trip from Cairo. Tourists still make the trek to experience the community’s idyllic palm groves, olive orchards, and fresh water springs. Only this year was a solar power plant erected in the town to provide electricity. There is no cell phone service, and the oasis’s isolated position has allowed the inhabitants’s tribal Berber culture to remain largely unchanged throughout the centuries.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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iStock
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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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iStock

Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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